In 1928, the acclaimed African-American writer, Zora Neale Hurston (best known for her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God), traveled to a small black suburb just north of Mobile, Alabama to interview an elderly man named Cudjoe Lewis. This was not the first time that a black scholar had traveled to Alabama to hear this man’s fascinating life story.
The small community where Cudjoe lived was called Africatown. Populated almost entirely by second and third generation Africans, it had been founded 68 years before by a group of former slaves collectively considered to be the last known Africans transported illegally to the United States. Their unique story is perfectly emblematic of the systematic injustices long suffered by members of the African American community.
Cudjoe Lewis (his slave name) was born Oluale Kossola in the Bante region of the West African Kingdom of Dahomey (present day Benin). As a young member of the Yoruba people, Kossala began his training as a warrior at the age of 14. However, before his 20th birthday (right around the time he was expected to take a wife), his village was conquered by a neighboring kingdom. Kossola and other captives were marched to the coastal port city of Ouidah where he was held in a slave pen (barracoon) for three weeks waiting to be sold. It was 1860, and although the slave trade had been banned in the United States for more than 50 years, it is estimated that tens of thousands of Africans were smuggled into the country illegally in the first half of the 19th century.
A man named William Foster, the captain of an illegal American slave ship called the Clotilde, purchased Cudjoe and 109 other enslaved young people (from various parts of west Africa) at the bequest of Timothy Meaher, a local Mobile plantation owner and shipbuilder. Allegedly, Meaher had made a $100,000 bet that he could successfully sneak slaves into Alabama right under the nose of the federal government. This proposition was considered so risky that when the crew of the Clotilde discovered their cargo was to be illegal slaves, Captain Foster had to double their pay to prevent a mutiny.
In July of 1860, federal agents learned that Foster’s illegal slave ship had entered Mobile Bay in southern Alabama. The Slave Trade Act of 1807 had banned the import of new slaves to the States and a violation of this law could actually result in the death penalty. Typically, when a illegal slave ship (classified as a pirate vessel by the government) was captured, the slavers were arrested and the slaves were returned to Africa. This didn’t deter Captain Foster, who transferred his illegal cargo of humans to a new ship, and burnt and scuttled the Clotilde in Mobile Bay to destroy any evidence of his crime. Some of the captives were sold to slave traders but most remained in or near Mobile. And of course, Meaher, compassionate man that he was, kept around thirty for himself, including Kossola, who would soon be renamed Cudjoe Lewis because apparently this was easier for Meaher to pronounce.
To their credit, the federal government did attempt to prosecute the smugglers but because the slave ship had been destroyed and no ship manifest could be located, Timothy Meaher and William Foster got off pretty much scott-free. The young Africans they had illegally smuggled into Alabama (though technically free under federal law) would as a result languish under slavery until formally emancipated and made citizens at the end of the Civil War.
With their freedom ensured by the 14th Amendment, it would seem as if the ordeal of the Clotilde slaves was nearing an end, but in actuality it was only beginning. Members of the group petitioned the government to return them to Africa but were refused. Lacking other options, the group amazingly managed to stay together and settled near Mobile. They worked odd jobs, slowly accumulated some property, and finally set up an independent community they called Africatown. They elected leaders, set up a judiciary system, built a school for the town – all while continuing to observe their original cultural customs. They even bestowed both African and Christian names on their children and taught them the language of their homeland.
“The Africans called their settlement African Town, as an acknowledgement of who they were and wanted to remain and where they wanted to be. But it was also an acknowledgement of their failure. Because they had not been able to return, the next best thing was to “makee de Africa where dey fetch us” …. the town was unique; it was the first time that a group of Africans – besides the maroons who had hid their camps in swamps and woods since the seventeenth century – had built their very own town on their own land in the United States.”
For decades, the residents of Africatown aspired to return home but were met with opposition at every turn. Cudjoe Lewis at some point attempted to sue Meaher for reparations, claiming he had been unjustly enslaved and should receive compensation for five years of free labor. This went absolutely nowhere. Later, when the US Government began resettling at least some African-Americans in Liberia, the community petitioned to be included in the repatriation. Their appeal was denied. Cudjoe and the others began to accept the fact that they were stranded in the United States.
Cudjoe Lewis finally died in 1935 at the age of 94 but not before giving several interviews to tell his story. Zora Hurston managed to film him as well – the only known film footage of a person who was directly involved in the African slave trade. The man whose real name was Oluale Kossola was the last surviving captive from the Clotilde.
Many descendants of the original group continue to live in the community today. They are among the few African-Americans descended from slaves who know who their African ancestors were, what they were called in their native language, and where they were from.
Today, Africatown faces new challenges, specifically from the energy industry, which is seeking approval to build large oil storage tanks and an oil pipeline close enough to the community to put them at risk of pollutants or worse case scenario, a major industrial accident. This is being met with fierce opposition from Africatown community leaders – perhaps emboldened to action after receiving official recognition as a historical site in 2012. An ordinance calling for stricter regulations of the energy industry is currently being debated by the Mobile City Council.
Protecting Africatown as an important cultural and historical site is a worthy endeavor and frankly, it’s about time we fully recognize the injustices that the Clotilde survivors endured and take actual steps to make amends and preserve their legacy. This is one case where I’m all for reparations, if not on an individual level, than at least to help the long-suffering community in the restoration process.